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Economy & Business

What would access to an ultra-high-speed broadband network do for St. Louis?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 3, 2010 - There’s been noticeable buzz in recent days since word came that St. Louis is bidding to be a test market for Google’s ultra-high speed fiber optic internet service.

Google is planning to bring its experimental broadband network -– said to be about 100 times faster than what most Americans have today -- to a select few communities across the country. For the techies out there, the speed of the broadband network is 1 gigabit a second. Google says it is eventually planning to offer the service at what it calls a “competitive price” to at least 50,000 and up to 500,000 people.

Kara Bowlin, press secretary for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, confirmed that the city is in the process of completing its application for Google Fiber. The deadline is March 26, and word about which cities are selected is expected later this year.

Mayor Slay recently began getting tweets from city residents about the competition, prompting his office to look into the application, which among other things asks about the city’s climate and terrain, as well as how many utility poles it owns.

Bowlin said the mayor has dispatched his so-called Vanguard Cabinet -– a group of young professionals helping to come up with ideas and initiatives for the city -– to design a website (not yet live) and urge people to upload YouTube videos about why they want Google Fiber. A poll is likely forthcoming on MayorSlay.com to gauge community interest. The mayor has been tweeting about the contest, too.

Plenty of other cities are in the running for this competition, but it’s natural to play the what-if game. Google says with its service, people would be able to download high-definition, full-length movies in less than five minutes.

David Brown, president of Datotel, which provides cloud computing resources and facilities (a 30,000-square-foot data center downtown) where companies can store their data and equipment off site, said the increased broadband speed would improve the nature of web interaction.

"People aren't just downloading videos and buffering and watching them anymore," he said. "It's all about two-way communication, where speed really does matter. Now that people are conducting so much business over the web, there's a lot less tolerance for latency."

How might businesses benefit from all this? As Bowlin said in an e-mail, “If used correctly, [the broadband network] could give existing businesses a huge push to developing new products and ideas  -- and it could draw new businesses and residents to St. Louis to take advantage of our super-high-speed internet.”

Brown said he agrees that the Google Fiber service would spur innovation wherever it goes, could enable the city to increase its visibility, and help it attract technology companies and retain so-called “knowledge workers.” (For his part, Brown said he gives St. Louis a “decent chance” at being named a test city.)

He said many companies would benefit greatly from being able to quickly access large amounts of data, as well as from having access to computing resources like processing in real time. Businesses like his also stand to benefit.  

"For the companies we work with, their infrastructure is in our data center," Brown said. "They don’t have servers at their office at all, so it is important that they have reliable and fast transport to ensure the end user experience is as if the server was right next to them. So if and when we are lucky enough (to be a test city), suddenly smaller businesses, where the cost of reliable and fast transport is currently prohibitive and they are unable to benefit from our cloud services (like storage and security offerings), will be able to afford a large connection to the internet and thus more access to services that they couldn't have before."

Brown also said the introduction of the high-speed service could create a more competitive environment.

“Google's involvement in this project could demonstrate how private companies can work with government entities to bridge the digital divide and provide wide access to high-speed internet,” Brown said. “The hope is that other carriers would follow suit and step their game up a little bit. If I’m a CEO of an internet service provider and Google comes to town, I know they have a reputation of being disruptive and turning business models on their head. I’m asking, ‘What can I do to make sure I’m offering customers high-speed internet and invest in infrastructure.'”

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